A Selection of Eighteenth-Century Poetry
Pattie Cowell and Carla Mulford
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Beginning students struggle with these materials, partly
because they arise from a time and aesthetic unfamiliar to them and partly
because poetry as a genre seems more difficult to many of them. I find
it most effective to try two contradictory strategies simultaneously: I
ask students to stretch their historical imaginations with a bit of time-travel
("Dr. Who" comes to mind), and I try to highlight the
ways in which the themes and concerns of these poets are still with us.
Though the time-travel is more fun at first for me than
for the students, most of them get the idea soon enough. I take them back
to a time when there was no United States, when poetry was the primary
literary genre (and changes were in store), when midwives outnumbered physicians,
when western Pennsylvania seemed like the outer edge of white civilization,
when manuscript culture flourished alongside a fledgling printing industry,
when individualism was not a cultural value (or even a part of the English
language), when periodicals were a new phenomenon, when literacy rates
were changing dramatically. The more concrete the context becomes, the
more accessible the poetry. Some of this can be structured around a fairly
accessible piece -- Turrell's "Lines on Childbirth," for example
-- if we try to reassemble as much as one can of Turrell's world as we
read: Her literary aesthetic, her educational opportunities, health
care, family life, and so forth.
Finding issues relevant to contemporary concerns in these
poems is deceptively easy. While it is important not to construct eighteenth-century
poets in our own image, they wrote about many of the things that concern
us still: the stresses of war, the joys and struggles of family life, health
and its absence, nature and human nature, travels, gender roles, religion,
race and racism, the human comedy.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The eighteenth-century poets represented here concern themselves with
issues of class, race, and gender. Ebenezer Cook's "Sot-weed Factor,"
for example, is a freewheeling satire tha ttakes class consciousness as
a given for commenting on the conditions of life in colonial Maryland.
Much of the humor derives from the pitiful way colonial subjects -- farmers,
yeomen, business people, laborers -- measure up to their English counterparts.
Sarah Morton's "The African Chief" is a prominent example of
colonial concern over slavery. The anoymous "Lady's Complaint"
attacks gender-based inequalities. And many other examples in this selection
touch these issues as well.
From a historical perspective, eighteenth-century poets struggled with
the cultural devaluation of poetry as a genre. As prose became more popular
and socially influential, poetry lost much of its audience. Poets wrote
implicit defenses of poetry, perhaps as counterweights to the shared cultural
assumptions that produced de Tocqueville's (later) disparaging comment: "I
readily admit that the Americans have no poets; I cannot allow that
they have no poetic ideas." Thus poetry itself becomes an important
In addition, the perennial question of geography may be significant
here. Is this poetry English or American? Is the tradition that produced
it a continuation of Old World traditions or evidence of New World exceptionalism? Or
both? Poets continued to invent the New World, and in the later part
of the century, the New Republic. What shape did these inventions take? How
did they change over time? How did expectations clash with reality? How
did authority mediate experience?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The selections here vary tremendously in form, but students
will find a background in neoclassical aesthetics useful for most of them.
The original audience for eighteenth-century merican poetry
depended on the vehicle for distribution. Of course it was restricted to
the literate, making it a mostly white audience. But beyond that given,
audiences would vary. Periodical poetry would have wide regional circulation,
especially in urban areas. Books and chapbooks might circulate in both
England and the colonies. Manuscript verse would circulate largely
among family and friends of the writer, perhaps in a club or salon setting,
groups more frequently found among well-to-do readers.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Comparisons with contemporary English poets can be instructive. Geographical
or regional contrasts among the colonial selections illustrate the lack
of a national voice until very late in the century.
Cowell, Pattie. Women Poets in Pre-Revolutionary America. Troy,
NY: Whitston, 1981. Entries grouped by individual poets, so access
to relevant material is relatively easy.
Davis, Richard Beale. Intellectual Life in the Colonial South,
Vol. III. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978. On William
Individual entries in American Writers Before 1800, edited by
James A. Levernier and Douglas R. Wilmes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1983.
Lemay, J.A. Leo. "Ebenezer Cooke." In Men of Letters in
Colonial Maryland. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1972:
--. "Richard Lewis and Augustan American Poetry." PMLA
83 (March 1968): 80-101.
Silverman, Kenneth, ed. Colonial American Poetry. New York: Hafner,
Watts, Emily Stipes. The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977: 9-61.